Christmas songs are blaring in the great room, and baby, it’s cold outside. Now and again, the lyrics to a song are so evocative they stop me in my tracks. Why? The precision, economy of words, and an image so clear that I would sell my right ear to create the same power in my writing.
Songwriters are lucky, they have a score and a singer to sell their lyrics. As writers, we have only our words, no chords, no major shifts, just the rattle of a turned page or a finger swipe. We rely on careful construction of characters, the description of a setting that is sufficient to create an image but not so detailed as to bore, and our ability to put it all together in a way that readers arrive where we want them to through the warp and weft of the narrative.
Lyrics are no different, they are images drawn so well and so clearly that they travel with us throughout our lives. Sometimes changing us, creating a longing to be or see or do. The lean, poetic cleanliness of a great lyric is something we might strive for daily.
To make my point, I picked stanzas from four songs. The first song was written long before I was a twinkle. But it is one I have known all my life and each time I hear it, I feel longing, hope, and loss. I dare you not to.
“I’ll find you in the morning sun, and when the night is new. I’ll be looking at the moon, but I’ll be seeing you.”
‘I’ll be Seeing You’ written in 1938 saw the country through WWII and onward, into infinity. NASA sent Billie Holiday‘s 1944 recording as its final transmission to the Opportunity rover when its mission ended on Mars in February 2019. How fitting. Don’t you wish you packed a wallop like that with every line in a book?
The second song creates an indelible picture of freedom and the ties that bind us.
“Fly the ocean in a silver plane. See the jungle when it’s wet with rain. Just remember till you’re home again, you belong to me.”
Of course, it helps if Jo Stafford is singing it. If you’ve never heard her classic version of ‘You Belong to Me’ run to Pandora or U-Tube. But with or without Ms. Stafford, the imagery and emotion of the lyrics are undeniable.
Having grown up in Michigan with Motown 126 miles away, Smokey Robinson’s poetry fueled much of my music. The lyrics of my third selection never fail to get a grin and a singalong from me. Why?
“I’m stickin’ to my guy like a stamp to a letter, like the birds of a feather, we stick together. I’m telling you from the start, I can’t be torn apart from my guy.”
Because Mr. Robinson created a fulsome female protagonist with a clear agenda in only thirty-four words.
And number four brings us back to Christmas.
Christmas songs ring all the old familiar bells, a few lines, and you’re shivering in the back of your parent’s car, filled with excitement, knowing you’ll never sleep. Yet I admit that when it comes to indelible pictures, well – ‘Santa Baby.’
“Come and trim my Christmas tree with some decorations bought at Tiffany’s. I really do believe in you, let’s see if you believe in me.”
Well, do you? Money-grubbing little … gold digger.
I hope I’ve made my case that as writers with 70,000 words or more at our disposal, we might take a lesson from our favorite songs and etch rather than paint. You may disagree with the lyrics I picked, but really, how could you?
I’ll Be Seeing You by Sammy Fain / Irving Kahal
You Belong to Me by Chilton Price / Pee Wee King / Redd Stewart
My Guy by Ronald White / Smokey Robinson
Santa Baby by Philip Springer / Joan Javits / Anthony Fred Springer
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